Cambodia business

Reopening Still a Distant Promise in Cambodia’s Remote East

Mondulkiri tourism faces big challenges, and the government’s plan to spur growth is years away
A motorist drives pass a roundabout in Mondulkiri province on November 15, 2021. Picture: Sam
A motorist drives pass a roundabout in Mondulkiri province on November 15, 2021. Picture: Sam

In Sen Monorom’s quiet mountaintops, local hotel and tour operators marked last week’s Water Festival as the unofficial beginning to post-pandemic life.

“You are our first guests,” said a smiling host at the Emario Mondulkiri resort as he helped a bus full of Phnom Penh tourists unload their bags. The resort had been closed for nearly two years. It reopened earlier this month, anticipating a trickle of local tourists for the Water Festival.

Cambodia recently dropped quarantine mandates for vaccinated international travelers and lifted most Covid-19 measures around the country. The rule changes made it the first Southeast Asian nation to fully reopen.

The move has injected a sense of optimism into businesses along the country’s tourism trail — Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville. But in Sen Monorom, in the country’s remote east, the reopening seemed little more than a distant promise.

View overlooking Mondulkiri province on November 14, 2021. Picture: Sam
View overlooking Mondulkiri province on November 14, 2021. Picture: Sam

“We lose money every day,” said Horn Him, a staff member at Healthy Choices bakery. “Our future is very uncertain.”

Many of the area’s biggest problems predate the pandemic: insufficient electricity and water supplies, bad roads, undeveloped tourist attractions.

“People come to Mondulkiri because of the Bousra waterfall,” said Poun Rathana, the Emario’s manager. “Besides that, there is nothing else to do. The roads to other waterfalls are all very bad,” she said.

With little in the way of prime attractions, tourists are gone the next day. “When tourists do come, they stay only one night,” she said.

Tourists visit Phnom Dos Kramom in Mondulkiri province on November 14, 2021. Picture: Sam
Tourists visit Phnom Dos Kramom in Mondulkiri province on November 14, 2021. Picture: Sam

Mondulkiri received only a smattering of tourists over the Water Festival’s four day weekend, disappointing many. Officials pointed to the bad weather, but said the absences of local outbreaks should count as a success.

“It’s because of changing weather,” said Mondulkiri governor Thorng Savun, adding, “If businesses had any problem, tourists who came in recent days would also have problems.”

The province has tons of ecotourism potential. Its untamed jungles and abundant wildlife provide limitless opportunities for hiking, trekking, bird-watching and beyond. The government has proposed a 15-year “masterplan” to develop the area’s roads and infrastructure.

Local businesses are counting on the plan’s success.

“We can’t do much else,” Poun Rathana said. “The population in Mondulkiri is small, about 92,000, and they are very scattered. Changing from a hotel to a restaurant isn’t possible.”